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What links a yellow dwarf with the Curse of Scotland, with Matrimony and Intrigue, ladies with feathers, and countries all over Europe? Read on…

1796 caricature by James Gilray showing Lady Georgiana Gordon holding the Pope (the nine of diamonds) in a game of Pope Joan.

Did you know that there is a theory that Pope John VIII was a woman? This thirteenth century conspiracy theory (conspiracy theories, it seems, aren’t a modern phenomenon) suggests that Ioannes Anglicus; AD 855–857 was a woman who disguised herself to become secretly involved in church matters (women were not allowed to be priests, of course) and proved so able that she rose up the ranks to become Pope. The best bit of the story, widely believed throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, was that her sex was revealed when she gave birth during a procession. That would do it…

Our usual source for such things is Wikipedia. Do have a look for the full story.

Meanwhile, the whole business spawned a parlour game, first mentioned in eighteenth century documents, called Pope Joan. Again, ‘Google it’ for details. It seems pretty complicated, and had overtones of religious and political bias, but became very popular in the Victorian period. If you want to have a play, used sets are available on ebay…!

Jean and Joan, our ever reliable Social History volunteers, have found a set in our archives…

These lovely mother-of-pearl counters have an archetypal Victorian look referred to as chinoiserie.

This is probably a nineteenth century set, possibly early. Chinoiserie became popular in Britain in the eighteenth century, and these counters clearly show an oriental influence.